For some people, there can be nothing more uncomfortable to imagine than to spend the day lolling about in a graveyard. Or worse, snoozing on a dead person’s grave.
But that’s for just some people.
For a bunch of others, especially those seen frequenting the Hindu Burial Ground in Indiranagar, it’s really nothing out of the ordinary.
The chef’s assistants at some of the small restaurants and messes just across the road come here armed with knives and graters in one hand, and polythene bags filled with veggies in the other. They think it’s way more luxurious to turn a polished granite gravestone into a chopping table than to cram it into the restaurant and compete for space with the cleaner and dozing watchman. So they come in, wash the surface of a gravestone, unload the bag of onions, green chilies, coconut, beans, carrots, and begin chopping, grating, etc. And once it’s all done they load the chopped stuff back into the bag, pick up their weapons and head back to HQ. Sometimes, of course, coconut needs some sun to dry and get that flaky texture for the perfect chutney. So they leave it behind for a few hours and come back for it. And it’s somehow always still there.
Closer to noon, the stones are warm, and a quick stretch and siesta feel like a hot stone massage on tired muscles. So sometimes the chef’s assistant can be found taking his or her 40 winks or more. And so intuitively, the tea guy rides his bicycle through the cemetery ringing his signature bell to announce tea. The plastic throwaways come out, and the sleepy graveyard wakes up for a refreshment break.
When I’m on the job showing tourists around, we often land up at about this time at the Hindu graveyard, and we of course see the kitchen counter improvs. And then we come across a bunch of other townsfolk: young musicians and brass bands practicing their syncs, hard-working construction workers hungover from last night’s peg too many, opportunistic petty gambler gangs, dog tired people, tired dogs, calves tied to the gravestone while their mothers graze for thistle off an unstoned grave, stoned men and women, gravediggers on a break, zombie-like beggars who burn the midnight oil, and once in a while, a grieving bereaved offering Biriyani on a leaf-plate to their lost loved one.
It’s made me realize over time that there’s no surface more versatile than the top of a grave!
It’s just so fascinating. Not just the versatility, but also the colorfulness of the massive yard. The more opulent graves have digitally printed images of the dead on the tombstones to immortalize the dead. The thick polished granite stone shows no compromise on expense. The less ornate are many notches quieter in a statement, with a very approximately sized slab of unpolished stone keeping the body down. And then we have those on the poverty line who sometimes can’t afford even a stone, so they use cement and paint it happy colors. And then below the poverty line, those who can’t even buy cement so just use the same earth they dugout to make the grave, and use weeds and wildflowers to mark the spot. Poor in life, and even more poor in death.
It is the children’s graves that really strain my heart.
“BABY. Born 11-9-1996. Expired 13-12-1998”
And then, I have this vantage point of foreign, or more so, western travelers. It feels completely impossible, or at least wrong to try and call a Swedish Graveyard and this Indiranagar Graveyard by the same name. There’s nearly no similarity or comparison. One is solemn, and the other feels to me like a place with a sense of humor. One is quiet, and the other is a riot of chit-chat, mooing, honking, laughter, and such noise. One is pristinely clean and green, while the other is a casual scatter of useless discards.
As a Cultural Anthropologist I can’t help but turn this into a subject:
What gives death such different treatments?
I mark the matter-of-fact cheer and the relaxed attitude of people in the graveyard, in stark contrast to the visitors I’d seen in cemeteries in Europe? The explanation for this I wouldn’t have found in history books. For this, I would need to go talk to someone who hangs out in the cemetery. And my luck as always brings me to just this perfect man to chat with!
“Death is not the end. It’s just a transit stop to a better destination,” explains an old man is often seen smoking his beedi on his favorite unpolished gravestone. He solders iron for a living which is a noisy affair so comes for a stretch and a smoke break to the cemetery. “We celebrate death because you see all the people here are from wretched and poor homes. They’re sick and tired of life, and when someone dies some of us are even envious of him.”
He nailed it for me.
The cheer comes from a deep-rooted, inbred philosophical outlook: a spiritual viewpoint stemming from the Vedic theories of reincarnation and Karma. Dying is not the end of life. It is the mere shedding of tired old clothes, and an adventurous opportunity to don a whole new avatar based on a divine assessment of how you’ve performed in this life.
“You should see when a dead body is brought to be buried here: there’s music, there’s dancing, there are alcohol, food, and drugs. Of course, the bereaved will miss him and shed tears for their own loss. But from the viewpoint of the dead, it’s only a step in the right direction. Therefore the revelry!”
Anthropologist & Founder, Culture Rings / www.culturerings.com
Pictures Courtesy Andy Deemer.